A question I get asked all the time by my French high school students is, "Why did you come to Mulhouse? Why not Paris?"
My response always gets a laugh: "Well, I didn't get to choose."
This may be true – you can rank your top three regions on your TAPIF application, but you have little say in which big city or tiny village you will be placed in – but I actually never wanted to be Paris! I love the French capital, and I was lucky enough to spend four months studying abroad there in 2017. But when I applied to be an English Teaching Assistant in France, I was hoping to be placed in the south of France or Lyon.
I was ecstatic when I was chosen to receive one of 10 Fulbright ETA grants in France, but I won't lie, my face fell slightly when I realized that I had been placed in the Académie of Strasbourg (and not just because of Anthony Bourdain). I had never really had an interest in Germany, and I had really only heard about Alsace in 12th grade World History class. I tried even harder to keep the smile on my face when I learned that I would be working at a high school in a town called Mulhouse. Where the hell was Mulhouse?
One extensive Google search later, I was slightly more optimistic – I saw pretty, colorful buildings in the town center and a quaint canal, and it was only a train ride away from the more well-known cities of Strasbourg and Colmar. Plus, it was only seven months. I'd survive.
Now, a year and half later, Mulhouse feels like home, despite the fact that it became the "coronavirus capital" of Europe in early March 2020.
I have come to love this unique, underrated, artistic, slightly misunderstood city. Because of the people I've met, obviously, but also for many other reasons.
First of all, Mulhouse is a fairly small town, with a population of ~110,000 people (of 136 different nationalities!). This means that you can get around easily, especially with the extensive tram and bus lines. It also means that the cost of living here is much cheaper than in cities like Strasbourg, Paris, or Lyon. (A huge plus for someone living on a teaching assistant's salary!) Although sometimes I miss the wide variety of restaurants that I enjoyed in Philadelphia, I have also fallen in love with the local food.
Visit... Le Nid Guinguette Urbaine.
This adorable local café is a mix between traditional Alsatian cuisine like
fleischnackas, and everything from fruit-topped pancakes for brunch to gorgeous peanut butter toasts to fluffy chocolate chip cookies.
Mulhouse also boasts a very interesting history. Once upon a time, it was its own independent republic, before officially becoming a part of France in 1798 (and then Germany, and then France again, then Germany.... and finally, back to France). Nicknamed the "French Manchester," it thrived during the Industrial Revolution, becoming a center for textile production, automobiles and trains. Today, some say it is undergoing a "comeback," despite many deeming it an "unsexy" French town.
Visit... Le Musée des impressions sur étoffes.
This museum is a stunning space that offers a detailed history of Mulhouse's
background in textile production. Plus, exhibitions showing a wide variety of intricate fabrics, ateliers, and a gift shop with Mulhouse-made textiles.
Living in Mulhouse, you have access to three cultures for the price of one. I can get to both Germany and Switzerland in less than half an hour, and this proximity allows for lots of cultural exchange – from language (street signs are in both French and German!) to food (think sauerkraut and raclette). I've been to thermal baths and traditional Weinstubes in Germany, countless museums in Basel, and more. I'm even learning German!
Visit... Markgräfler Winzerstube.
I have a real soft spot in my heart for this adorable, traditional German
restaurant in Badenweiler, and not just because I can now order my own red
wine in German. Try the potato soup and the Stubenteller, a plate full of Black
Forest ham, crispy potatoes and a fried egg.
And finally, Mulhouse is nestled at the edge of the Vosges Mountains, and I can see the Grand Ballon, the highest point of the mountain range, from my apartment window. There are endless opportunities for hiking, skiing, snowshoeing, swimming in lakes, camping... Plus, of course, there are the fermes auberges (restaurant-inns on farms in the mountains, offering the freshest, most local Alsatian dishes you can possibly find). And finally, the tiny villages and vineyards studded amidst the mountains make for beautiful views.
Treat yourself to a room at this 4-star hotel with a luxury spa and top-notch
restaurant. I have never felt so pampered, and it's fairly affordable if you visit
during the week! Then, hike up to this peak for a birds-eye view of Alsace
and a dose of history (it was the site of an important battle in World War I).